Charles Masters’s father was never able to show his son what he did in World War II. The movies of the 1950s had plenty of fighter planes and tanks, but there were never any gliders.
The use of gliders–towed, engineless aircraft made of plywood or canvas stretched over light metal frames–was possibly the biggest military gamble of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The American operation, code-named Neptune, involved landing 573 gliders–carrying close to 4,000 men, jeeps, light artillery, and other equipment–behind German lines in advance of the larger attack on Utah Beach.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Masters, a 45-year-old Chicago real estate attorney, finally saw a photo of an army glider while browsing through a used-book store. His interest in his father’s wartime experiences rekindled, he tracked down a few books on the military use of gliders but never found one that dealt specifically with the use of gliders on D-day.
“Someone once said, ‘If there’s a book you really want to read and it hasn’t been written, then you should write it yourself,'” says Masters, who’s devoted nearly all of his free time during the past four years to researching and writing Glidermen of Neptune: The American D-Day Glider Attack, which has been published by Southern Illinois University Press and goes on sale this week.
Given the dearth of information on the subject, Masters relied heavily on interviews with surviving glidermen. Masters contacted some through Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, which, along with the 101st Airborne, provided the glidermen and paratroopers for the D-day invasion. The Silent Wings Museum outside of Dallas and an association of glider veterans put him in touch with many others. All told, he interviewed 106 glidermen. “I talked to them over the phone, I went to their reunions,” he says, “and every one of them to a man gave me his time. They filled in many of the gaps left by the history books, and they told me their stories.”
For many, this was the first time they had talked in detail about their experiences, says Masters, whose father also didn’t talk much about his time as a gliderman. “A number of them told me, ‘I’ve never told my wife this, I’ve never told my children this, but this is what really happened.’ They told me some really grisly stories about what happened.”
Glidermen, who weren’t given parachutes, had to crash-land in enemy territory. Called “flying coffins,” the gliders offered no protection to their occupants, and once they landed soldiers were open targets for machine-gun and mortar fire. Allied planners expected 70 percent of the glidermen to become casualties before they had a chance to land and engage the enemy. “These guys were in the gliders, and bullets were literally coming up through their feet,” Masters says. “It was a mess, and that’s before they crashed!”
If the glidermen survived the German antiaircraft fire, they had to navigate “Rommel’s asparagus,” a network of two million telephone poles and steel rails planted in fields and pastures to hinder landings. “As if that wasn’t enough, they wired many of them together and put mines and shells on them, so that even if the wing was ripped off or the fuselage was torn apart they’d still explode and kill all the glidermen inside,” Masters says.
But the deadliest obstacle turned out to be the thick hedgerows of stones, trees, and bushes that divided the patchwork of farm pastures. “Many of them could literally stop a tank–I’ve seen pictures.”
The larger gliders, or Horsas, could carry 28 men or a jeep and a light artillery piece, but they were made of plywood and often splintered upon impact. “They were even more dangerous than the Wacos [smaller canvas gliders] because guys got huge slivers in them. . . . Some were literally impaled on six-foot-long splinters.”
Glider construction often “bordered on negligence,” says Masters. Though the prime government contractor was competent, its many subcontractors were often not as conscientious. “Before you knew it, everybody was building gliders or glider parts for the government,” Masters says. He describes a 1943 demonstration glider flight in which the mayor of Saint Louis and nine other dignitaries went up in a Waco glider pulled by an airplane with a towrope painted silver for the occasion. When they reached 2,000 feet, one of the wings fell off and the glider plummeted, killing everyone onboard. Investigators traced the part responsible for the crash to a subcontractor that had previously produced coffins.
Masters says that in spite of the risks and casualties involved, the use of gliders on D day was crucial to the success of the Utah Beach landing. In contrast, American troops landing at Omaha Beach–without the inland support of glidermen or paratroopers–suffered devastating casualties. Though the development of military helicopters made gliders obsolete, Masters wants to make sure that his father and the other glidermen will be remembered. “They were consummate soldiers,” he says. “They took the ultimate risk just to get to the battlefield.”
Masters and several local glider veterans will be at Border’s Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan, at 6 PM this Wednesday. For more information, call 573-0564.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell, courtesy Southern Illinois University Press.